All’s Quiet on the Western Front

stormI’m sitting in my dining room, at the table. The kids are in bed asleep. Andrew is in bed asleep. All I can hear is the gurgling of the fish tank, the occasional stirring of the dog in the corner, and my neighbors fighting outside the window. It’s 10 pm this time. The last time it was closer to midnight, and the talk sounded a lot more dangerous. In fact, the last time I’m pretty sure they threw some garbage cans around the yard at each other.

I listen to their voices but can’t really hear much more than the occasional curse word. I listen because I’m curious and because I feel for them. I understand the frustration that brings a person to the point of yelling and not caring who hears. Or yelling and wanting someone else to notice and care. Or even worse, the frustration of just being quiet and either not knowing what to yell or not caring enough to say anything at all.

Iron Sharpens Iron

Relationships are hard, and the ones that matter most tend to bring the most hardship. If I don’t like a coworker, I can avoid the person and keep things superficial. If I don’t like someone who lives in my house, there’s not much I can do but dive in and face the discomfort. I can quote the Bible verse, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:7) until I’m blue in the face, but I can’t ignore the fact that when iron sharpens iron, sometimes sparks fly!

I tell my kids all the time if people live in a house together they will sometimes have conflict. It doesn’t mean we don’t care about each other. It’s conflict that gives us the chance to learn how to face disagreements in ways that don’t hurt others. I tell them when they grow up and have families of their own they will know how to deal with conflict in ways that build up instead of destroy. That’s what I say, but I’m not sure I’m teaching them how to do it. I’m still learning it myself, and I have to admit I’m not all that good at it.

wedding picWhen Andrew and I got married, I knew that God planned us for each other. I felt certain of it. I never was one of those girls who thought there was one person for everyone, and I’m still not. If that were the case, I for sure would have messed up and married Mr. Wrong and then what? Would my whole life have been a mistake from then on? I have always believed that God’s will for me is flexible and fluid and that if I know him I’ll follow him and I’ll look for ways to do what he wants. If I miss some things he’s pointing out to me, he will still use me in other ways.

That being said, though, I knew Andrew was for me almost the moment I met him. Now I thank God for giving me that assurance! Now I can rest in the belief that God put Andrew in my life for a reason. When life gets hard and we get frustrated with each other, I can look back at the time I felt sure God put us together and know that he still wants to use us in each other’s lives.

If I believe this, I trust God will use him to change me into the person He wants me to be. I trust that God will use me to mold him into the person He wants Andrew to be. Even in times when living with another person is hard and I feel frustrated by our differences, I have to admit that when I look back at the people we were when we started this marriage, I like who we are now better. I might think at times that my life would have been easier had I just gone it alone, and I might be right. It almost definitely would have been easier in a lot of ways. However, what would I have become if left to my own devices, without the smoothing influence of my husband? I’m not sure I would have liked that person.

Peace in the War Zone

Let me give an example. One of the struggles we’ve had in our marriage revolves around the way that we talk. I come from a tell-it-like-it-is kind of family. I remember my grandma telling me men can’t read your mind so if you want something you’d better go ahead and just tell them what you want, not to expect that they’ll figure it out on their own. I took that to heart. I saw too many girls hinting, wishing that some guy would figure out they wanted something and then getting disappointed and even angry when the guys didn’t catch the hint. That seemed foolish to me, so I decided I wouldn’t hide how I felt or what I was thinking from my husband.

Andrew’s family is different. They’re waaay more subtle than mine. Their idea of telling-it-like-it is…well, my family would never even know there was any telling going on if they heard it. His family does this out of respect, I think. They don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, so they present themselves more subtly. And guess what. The other family members figure out what they mean without the loud, in-your-face telling that my family does. It works for them.

We were about to have a family conflict over the appropriate way to take the photo.

We were about to have a family conflict over the appropriate way to take the photo.

However, put these two together, and it’s not always so easy. When we were dating, I went home from college with him to visit his family one weekend. On Saturday night, I asked him to wake me up the next morning in time to get ready for church because I didn’t have an alarm clock. The time to get up came and went, and he didn’t even knock on my door. I finally woke up and asked him why he didn’t wake me up. His answer? “I was making noise so you’d hear it and wake up.” To him, this seemed like a perfectly polite method of waking me up. To me, it seemed like he didn’t care enough to make sure I was awake.

These different styles have led to a lot of “interesting” conversations over the years, but early on we both realized the value of being married to someone with a very different style of self-expression. Over the years, I have become less abrasive, more thoughtful in my approach. I’ve learned to think before I talk, to consider people’s feelings and not just blast everyone away with my opinion. I’ve learned that if the tone of my voice sounds angry, it doesn’t matter what I say because he will only hear anger. I’ve learned it’s not up to me to save the world and to point out everyone’s flaws and shortcomings. He’s learned to stand up for himself more, to be more aggressive in conversation. He’s learned to say what he thinks because people might not pick up on the subtle cues. Somehow in the mix of the two of us we’ve both found a decent middle ground that enables us to say what we think without hurting each other much of the time. This has translated into our other relationships at work and with friends as well.

Nothing Worth Doing is Ever All That Easy

The most recent picture of us. We've changed just a little from how we looked in that wedding photo!

The most recent picture of us. We’ve changed just a little from how we looked in that wedding photo!

In that case, iron has sharpened iron, but, oh my, that sharpening process has been long and difficult, and it will probably continue until the day one of us dies. It has involved deep issues, things from both our pasts that aren’t easily dealt with, things that neither of us ever wanted anyone else to know about, things that we can’t hide from the one we live with day in and day out, especially not if we want a healthy marriage. When those kinds of things come out in the open, they have the potential to destroy us, but they also have the potential to grow us into  stronger, more stable, more understanding people. People who are more Christlike.

I began writing this post over seven months ago. I have hesitated about posting it because I’ve got friends who know some of the realities of my marriage and might read it and think what a hypocrite I sound like, coming from a less-than-perfect marriage and writing about how God uses it. I hesitated because it’s easy enough to gloss over the difficulties publicly and present our marriage as this model relationship when it most definitely is not. We’ve had our share of destruction and pain over the years. I can’t help but think, though, that it’s worth it. It’s worth the arguments, the silence, the hurt that we’ve both sometimes felt because now that we have been married long enough to look back we can see some progress. We can see the positive changes that have resulted. We’re learning to see each other as people who are still growing and changing instead of as final products, solidly stuck in our ways and unable to change.

Not that we’ve perfected it! Not at all! There are still so many things that we need to work on, some that I’m sure we don’t even know about yet. There are still so many mistakes and blunders. We still struggle quite a bit. Sometimes I still look at him and think, “Who is that?!” and at times I wonder if he even knows me at all. Then he says something that summarizes my personality in one sentence and I think maybe I was wrong. Maybe he knows me better than I thought. No matter what our differences might be, our sixteenth anniversary is just around the corner, and I can happily say that we are not throwing garbage cans at each other. At least there’s that!

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Forgiveness Changes Everything

Who could ever stay mad at this sweetie?

The other day, my daughter stayed up too late. This may seem like a harmless event, but in her nine-year-old life, staying up too late produces a sentimental reaction to just about everything. After 9:30, she cries. She cries for the friends she left behind when we moved, she cries for the house we moved out of, she cries for pets that have died. On the particular night in question, she came to me with a sad face and cuddled on my lap and told me she was crying because of the mean things she had said to me in the past.

Right then, not one mean thing she had ever said came to mind. I said, “Honey, I can’t even remember those things anymore. I know you remember them, but I’m your mommy, I love you and I don’t even care what you said to me before.”

At that moment, a light came on in my head. This must surely be how God feels when we come to him with old sins, long forgiven, long forgotten. He loves us. He wants us for his children. He doesn’t even try to remember anything we did so long ago. When we accept Jesus’ sacrifice, those things are gone.

There’s a story I’ve been thinking about that illustrates this point. Jesus ate dinner with a lot of people, and in this story he was eating with the religious leaders of the time. They lived with the assumption that their religious observances and practices would pave their way into God’s good graces. In this particular story, they gathered for dinner. At some point in the party a woman who was known for her sinful life, a prostitute probably, came into the house where they were eating, searching for Jesus.

She saw him and fell at his feet kissing and annointing them with expensive perfume, wiping her tears from his feet with her own hair. The religious leaders in the room expressed their concern. “Don’t you know who that is, Jesus?!” No doubt they nudged each other, eyebrows raised. What did Jesus say? He turned to the woman and said, “Your sins are forgiven.” She came to him for forgiveness, and she received it.

An Expensive Sacrifice in An Unforgiven State

This woman expressed her love for Jesus in an extravagant way. She poured out something expensive. This wasn’t a five dollar Wal Mart special. Perfume cost a lot in Jesus’ day. Now, think for a moment about where she got the money for that perfume. She purchased the perfume with money she got from selling herself. She purchased it with her morality, her dignity, her very soul. She brought that to Jesus, and she sacrificed what she had to honor him.

Not only did she come to him with something expensive, but the woman came to Jesus in her unforgiven state. She came with her sins. She came carrying the jar of perfume that represented her sinful life. Had she never lived that life, she would have had nothing to present to him. She had a past, she had sin, and she gave it to him. Her act of turning that sin over to him, pouring it out on him, that was her sacrifice to him.

There’s a tension in Christianity. It comes from the pull between the freedom that comes from grace and the bondage that comes from sin. It sometimes manifests itself in this difficulty some Christians have in forgiving people who have wronged them, accepting people who live different lives from them, loving people who have made mistakes. I know it because I feel it. I have that tension in my own life. It’s the tension that makes me ask myself how I should treat people I know who mess up royally. How should I treat people who continue to live in their mistakes, who don’t seem to want to change? When I love someone, shouldn’t I want to point out their shortcomings so that they can change those and be somehow worthy of God’s love?

Forgiveness Brings Change

In thinking about the stories of Jesus in the Gospels, I don’t remember any times that he required a person to change before he or she came to him. I don’t remembering Jesus himself ever turning someone away because they weren’t good enough, sinless enough, perfect enough to come to him. They changed because they were with him, not because they heard about him or because someone told them to clean up their act before they made it to him.

Forgiveness breeds something in the forgiven. Maybe it’s not just realizing that we’re sinful that changes us, but maybe the actual forgiveness itself changes us.

I worry about us as believers sometimes. I worry about how we draw lines and create boxes and how we like to say, “This far is ok, but past that and we’re over the line.” I worry that we read the Sermon on the Mount, and instead of noticing that Jesus says that we can’t possibly be good enough and we therefore need his grace, we use his teachings to draw the lines around what we have decided determines sinful behavior and what determines being in God’s good graces even darker than they were before. We say, for example, “Aha! Before we thought murder was wrong. Well, guess what! Now even anger is wrong.” When we do that, we feel justified in ostracizing people who we think have crossed the line, have stepped outside the box. We choose the sins we don’t like and we focus on them, but we ignore the fact that our sins are all destructive and none of us escapes those sins on our own.

What Are We For?

IMG_8295

Tobias, Nebraksa

Even as I write this, I notice something. I notice my well-defined ability to judge people for being judgmental. I pull the Pharisees down from their high horses only to jump right up there in the saddles so I can look down at them from my “perfection.” In our culture today, it’s popular to say everyone has a right to live how they want. It’s hip to be against people who are against everyone different from them. I scroll down my Facebook feed and see people posting about the right to bear arms and restricting immigration, tossing out Muslims and putting (evangelical Christian) prayer back in school, and I feel myself climbing right up on the high horse next to the people who posted those, ready to push them down for their conservative views that go against the current cultural views that say we should love and accept everyone.

Then I realize something. I realize that, just like everyone else, I define myself as what I’m against instead of what I’m for. I judge the judgmental. In championing acceptance and love for those who used to be on the margins of society, I couch my judgmentalism in terms of acceptance, thus enabling myself to continue being judmental but in a politically correct manner that is focused on judging those more conservative than I am.

Set Free for Freedom’s Sake

Our culture of acceptance and tolerance isn’t a bad thing. I like it. I think there are some parts of it that resonate with the Gospel. I’m glad that the new generation of Christians seems to be rising up to love the ones previous generations saw as unlovable. Here’s my fear, though. I hear many Christians advocating love for the sinner and yet scorning other Christians whose opinions about social issues or understanding of theology differ from theirs in the same way that the previous generations scorned the non-believers.

Galatians 5:1 says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” A Bible college professor once told me that the translation doesn’t quite convey the intensity of the original meaning. It actually means something more like, “Christ set you free. Now start living like you’re free!” We don’t have to set up boxes and draw lines. We don’t have to self-righteously proclaim to the world which groups we’re against. We can love people exactly how they are: sinful and messy, law-bound or lawless. If I’m quick to say that we should love gay people, for example, but turn my back on my friends who see things in a legalistic, conservative Christian way, maybe I’m still missing the point.

A big, fancy church in Honolulu.

Honolulu, Hawaii

What are my motives? Am I zealous for truth and righteousness and freeing the oppressed or am I zealous for maintaining a particular self-image that revolves around condemning those who are different from me? Do I do what I do for God or to promote an image of myself as a particular type of Christian?

This comes back around to the story of the woman with the perfume. These days we like to focus on the woman and on how she was forgiven, and that is very important. However, we also need to remember that Jesus loved and forgave the Pharisees in his midst as well. Those who believed in him–those were also forgiven and accepted, even if they hadn’t quite grasped the idea of freedom from the Law. Maybe even if they never did.

I Was the Perfect Mother

I love mom

Reassurance from a little artist.

I remember when I was a perfect mother. Man, those were good days! Days when I could go in a restaurant and smugly watch moms struggle to get their kids to eat. Days when I could walk down the mall and feel superior when I saw mothers try to cope with their children’s tantrums.  Too bad everything changed. I suddenly lost my mothering skills on the day that my first daughter entered the world.

Before my oldest’s birth, I remember talking to a coworker who had teenage children. I told her that I would stay home after the baby was born but might do freelance work or try to do something from home “after things went back to normal”. I so distinctly remember her laugh. Somewhere between incredulous and mocking. She said, “Things will never go back to normal.”

How hard could it be? I asked myself. I graduated from college with honors. I lived overseas and navigated a completely new country in a language I did not know at all at first. I lived on my own and learned to manage a home in a place that had an unreliable electricity and water supply and required that everything be made from scratch with food I sometimes walked a mile or more to buy and lug home. Children couldn’t be harder than that, right?

Wrong! How incredibly naive I was. Children have been waaaaaay harder than that. All of those things I did before I married and had children still contained one element that mothering does not and never will: the ability to live for myself. Sure, I said I lived for God, and I did to some extent. I was a missionary, after all. But I never learned self-sacrifice in the concrete, day-by-day, unavoidable way I have since having children.

I visited my former roommate in Ukraine a few years ago. She somehow looked almost exactly like she did when we lived in that apartment building behind us 15 years ago. How could that happen?!

Roommates, 15 years later. How is it that she looks the same?!

As a single woman, I had roommates. With each one, elements of my personality emerged. Some of those elements showed me areas that God wanted me to change. I worked on those, changed some things to make life with the roommates more pleasant. I thought I had it together. Then I got married, and before long I realized there were a lot more rough edges to my personality that I hadn’t yet smoothed down. The more into marriage we got, the more of those rough edges we found.

Then motherhood hit. We thought Hey, we’ve been married a couple of years. We’re ready to have a baby! Now I ask myself if anyone is ever ready to have a baby. There must be women out there who take motherhood in stride. It seems Facebook is full of them. They love all of the fingerpainting and chaos and mess, and when their children scream in public it’s just downright cute to them. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m one of them.

I realized that when my daughter was a few hours old. I was trying to learn to breastfeed her, not doing well, really, and I found myself irritated. This didn’t bode well. How could I be irritated with a baby who had only been breathing the air on this planet for a few hours? And that was just the beginning of the rest of my life.

This littlest one is so silly!

This littlest one is so silly!

For me, the story of raising children has been one of learning to give up myself and yet not wanting to surrender. I know, I know, we have to keep some things for ourselves and carve out our own hobbies (hence this blog and a lot of crocheted items I’ve produced over the years). However, it’s really not possible to live for myself now that I have children. The moment I sit down to rest, I’m called on for something. The clothes I love often disappear to reappear in my oldest girl’s closet. I haven’t cooked a meal that I really liked for years, but I sure have cooked a lot of meals. I’d like to say that I have happily turned over my selfishness and have become this great mom who sacrifices it all for her children, but I don’t think I have. I still struggle.

Once in a while, my kids complain about each other to me. They tell me things that basically amount to them being in the midst of the same kind of struggle with their siblings. Selfishness vs. surrender. I tell them that anytime a person is in an intense relationship with another person there will be that struggle. It’s part of being in a family, and it’s good for us. If we live in a social vacuum, we won’t feel that tension between getting our own way and giving someone else what they need or want. We will sail along, having everything the way we want it. But we will also forfeit the good things that come with practicing self-sacrifice: the ability to see and sometimes meet another person’s needs, the desire to please God by surrendering to him instead of seeking just our own pleasure, the love and warmth of belonging to a family or close relationship of some sort. The results are worth every bit of sacrifice.

airport family

Is it still called a selfie if you’re taking a picture of an entire family?

Maybe that’s where God is working. Can I tell myself that? That point where my desires and their needs intersect sparks a fire that can refine us all and make us more of what God wants us to become. Now the key for me involves realizing that and surrendering to it. Stopping the fighting and pushing against it and letting God intervene and guide.

How hard can that be, right?

Easier said than done.